I read a review of the book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human in the NYRB. As usual the article summarized much of the book’s ideas. The author, Richard Wrangham, argues that the eating of cooked food by early protohumans was, to a large and unacknowledged extent, what enabled them to walk upright, get brainier, become more social and even to verbalize. In a nutshell, he says that since cooked food allows a more efficient transfer and absorption of nutrients than raw food does, the digestive track could evolve into a smaller-sized part of the animal (raw foods require large stomachs and long digestion), which then allowed the little guys to begin to stand up more, as their bellies were smaller. It also enabled the brain to evolve into a larger organ, as large brains require a lot of nutrition only available to hominids by eating cooked food. I’m beginning to see how some of these factors converged in ways that were lucky for us.
Cooking, Wrangham claims, necessitated that some part of the household guard the hearth (and children), and it also meant that groups larger than a single family were more practical. It’s been argued by others that the increased social interactions of early humans were what formed many of the brain’s pathways that determine how we behave and get along, or don’t get along. These new complex social structures also required larger brain capacities, as others have suggested… and both allowed and demanded the evolution of language to help mediate some of that social drama.
Wrangham also says that once we started eating cooked food, our mouths and jaws no longer had to be equipped mainly for tearing, ripping and intense prolonged grinding… which left early mouths available for other purposes — vocalizing… and maybe singing, too?
It’s an amazing argument — to tie all these crucial protohuman attributes to cooking. And equally interesting is how each attribute facilitated the others — all seemed to be interdependent.
Needless to say, Wrangham doesn’t buy into the relatively recent raw food movement — which claims that we humans are more naturally engineered for eating uncooked food, which is therefore presumed by adherents of this movement to be better for us. The assumption there is that early man and woman didn’t cook. Wrangham says that if they didn’t cook they wouldn’t have survived, and could never have evolved into us, as cooked food is so much more efficient at delivering nutrients. He says that standing and talking would never have happened on a diet of raw foods.